Facing up to new workplace realities

By Kyran Fitzgerald

Most of us have heard all about the ‘gig economy’ — all those perspiring Deliveroo cyclists and exhausted Uber drivers, slaving away for pin money.

A very bad thing it is, we are assured, by those who fret about a return to work practices best described by the novelist, Charles Dickens.

Technology enabled as they may be, these workers are as far from the cosseted world of Silicon Valley as can be imagined.

There is indeed no shortage of exploitation of the young as has been the case, no doubt, ever since the cavemen first wielded their clubs.

Out in the jobs market, however, something rather more interesting is occurring.

The whole idea of temporary work is undergoing a major rethink and a large expansion in the number of people working for high wages in various forms of temporary, or ‘contingent’, employment has been taking place.

Consultancy group Accenture, in 2015, published a report on the rise of what is now known as the ‘extended workforce’.

Temporary or contingent workers, these days, are as often as not better paid than the permanent staff alongside whom they now frequently work.

Accenture reported that the worldwide annual spend on contingent labour reached $300bn (€258.5bn) in 2015 while the proportion of America’s workforce made up of independent workers — freelancers, contractors, temps — had risen from 6% in 1989 to 33% by the mid-2010s.

Upwards of 80% of freelancers now have professional degrees, working in sectors such as engineering, healthcare, accountancy, and finance.

The ‘extended workforce’ is increasingly mobile, global, and borderless.

It is being driven by online contractor exchanges.

Firms pay per transaction for this outsourced talent drawn from ‘The Cloud’.

In Dublin, last week, international recruiters and HR executives gathered to consider this growing trend under the umbrella of the World Employment Conference (WEC).

This international group was holding its annual conference.

WEC vice president Annemarie Muntz suggested that some are slow to grasp the significance of this trend and to adapt to this new reality.

Flexible workers still have difficulty securing a mortgage.

“Banks are so conservative. They look at people’s past, not at their prospects,” said Ms Muntz.

Yet, she argues, many newcomers to the jobs market nowadays are looking for two, three, even four jobs, allowing them maximum flexibility.

Her colleague, Hans Leenje, suggested that trade unions too need to adapt to a situation where a large number of people move in and out of organisations as project workers and where core, permanent workforces are diminished in number.

Increasingly, organisations will have to adapt and start thinking in terms of ‘total talent management’ of a workforce that is much more diverse, not merely in background, but in terms of the level and type of commitment it brings to the company in question.

Flexible working often suits people, particularly those who wish to make their work serve their wider lives rather than vice versa as has become the case in our long hours working culture.

Occupational psychologist Amy Smyth pointed to the skills churn in companies which see themselves as mere ‘consumers of work’, less willing than previously to ‘invest in their people’.

But the rapidity of technological change means that more and more tasks are rendered obsolete.

One estimate is that close to one-half of white-collar tasks will be replaced by algorithms.

Workers will have to be retrained to remain useful and companies will have to recommit to skills development.

Not merely are firms increasingly outsourcing work, they are also engaging in more collaborations with other companies.

Accenture cites the example of Proctor & Gamble which has entered into more than 1,000 agreements with ‘innovation partners’.

The consultancy refers to the “web of cross-organisational relationships” that form part of a new “supply chain of talent”.

Royal Bank of Canada has established a steering committee of managers with responsibility for its diverse, extended workforce while other firms have established ‘talent management offices’ reporting directly to the top, the CEO.

Data analytics is being used to assess the performance of short-term workers and, increasingly, HR managers are being advised to see themselves as talent brokers rather than as personnel managers.

Public bodies, State organisations, struggling with skill shortages in key areas need to rethink the way they access the labour market.

The idea of adding large numbers to permanent workforces in response to perceived demand may have to be closely questioned in an environment where gaps can now be filled much more easily on a short-term basis, based on a matching up between supply and demand.

In the health sector, where the workforce has become more feminised and where younger professionals in general crave more time with family, outsourced working, particularly that based on project work, has attractions for both sides of the labour market transaction.

There is also quite a large group of professionals, such as doctors and teachers, to whom short-term contact with organisations after retirement from permanent posts can prove beneficial. The organisation retains their experience while they continue to contribute their expertise

Organised groups such as trade unions and professional bodies along with hidebound management should not be allowed to block changes which could operate both to the wider public good and in the interests of individuals with much still to contribute.

There are many ways of filling up the talent pool without adding unnecessarily to the long-term cost base.


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